Spanish woman sentenced to 13 months for passing funds to Palestinian terror group

Israel trumpeted plea bargain as support for its controversial move to ban 6 Palestinian groups, but judge says Juana Rishmawi, who worked elsewhere, had no knowledge of PFLP ties

Juana Ruiz Sanchez Rishmawi, a Spanish citizen married to a Palestinian, seen during her sentencing at Ofer prison near Jerusalem, on November 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Juana Ruiz Sanchez Rishmawi, a Spanish citizen married to a Palestinian, seen during her sentencing at Ofer prison near Jerusalem, on November 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Spanish woman was sentenced to 13 months in Israeli prison and fined NIS 50,000 ($16,000) on Wednesday for unknowingly working at an organization Israel charges transferred funds to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group.

Juana Ruiz Sanchez Rishmawi, a Spanish citizen married to a Palestinian, had worked for the Health Work Committees since 1993. The Israeli military issued an order in January 2020 declaring the group to be illegal. Rishmawi, along with several others, was arrested soon afterward.

Israeli authorities charged that the Health Work Committees had transferred millions in funding from European governments to the PFLP. The nonprofit, which denies the accusation, says it seeks to advance Palestinian access to health care, including by running a network of clinics.

Rishmawi was technically convicted of providing services to her now-banned employer, as well as illegally bringing money into the West Bank. Like many Palestinians in Israeli courts, Rishmawi chose to negotiate a plea bargain with Israeli military prosecutors.

“Even though [Rishmawi] suspected that the organization for which she worked and raised large sums was PFLP-affiliated, she continued working there. She kept working there after the group was banned by a legal decree,” military judge Eti Adar wrote in her sentence.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is avowedly committed to Israel’s destruction. The United States, the European Union, and Israel, among others, classify the faction as a terror group. Its armed wing is responsible for numerous attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, including a 2014 massacre at a Jerusalem synagogue that left 8 dead, including two terrorists.

Juana Ruiz Sanchez Rishmawi, a Spanish citizen married to a Palestinian, seen during her court case at Ofer prison outside of Jerusalem, where she is being accused of funneling large sums of donations from European governments to a banned Palestinian terror group, on November 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But what might have otherwise been business as usual in Israeli military court was overshadowed by the continuing controversy over a broader Israeli crackdown on Palestinian civil society groups allegedly affiliated with the PFLP.

In late October, Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed off on orders declaring six other prominent Palestinian civil society groups to be terror groups — in essence, fronts for the PFLP. The organizations included well-respected rights groups such as Al-Haq, Addameer, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.

Gantz’s declaration sparked a barrage of condemnations from the international community and rights groups. Israeli authorities have since doubled down on the charges, with one senior official telling reporters that the evidence was “ironclad.”

The international community, however, has remained critical of the decision. In statements following Gantz’s announcement, the European Union said: “Past allegations of the misuse of EU funds in relation to certain Palestinian [civil society] partners have not been substantiated.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry — under sustained international criticism — trumpeted Ruiz’s plea bargain in early November as proof that the PFLP had “operated a network of ‘humanitarian’ organizations with the goal of raising funds for terrorism.”

“The entire international community must work together with Israel in order to prevent terrorist organizations from using the veneer of civilian cover,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement.

But Rishmawi had not worked for any of the six organizations recently banned, but rather for an altogether different group. Her plea bargain does call the six banned organizations “PFLP fronts” in a background section, but the judge specifically noted in her ruling that Rishmawi had not confessed to any such matter.

At her attorney’s request, the Israeli military court subsequently issued a clarification: according to the indictment against her, Ruiz neither belonged to the PFLP, nor did she have any direct knowledge of whether funds she raised had been transferred to the terror group.

“The judge set matters straight — she may have suspected that there were ties between the PFLP and her employer. But she did not know if funds were being transferred to the PFLP,” lawyer Avigdor Feldman said in a phone call.

Feldman said that Rishmawi would demand a formal apology from Gantz and Lapid, who he said had exposed his client to legal action by publicly implying her to be a terror operative.

“When Gantz and Lapid published that she had confessed that the PFLP had taken over the six organizations — that was a total lie, and we’ll ask for a retraction and an apology,” the attorney said.

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